Saturday, 3 July 2010

Where characters get frowns from

I was rifling through old essays (maybe it wasn't a rifle, more of a sift) when I came across something I'd written about character depth. It was a long essay, and it was mainly me trying to sound cleverer than I am, but this was a bit of it:
If depth already exists within the reader, then the character is constructed instantly. When the reader identifies with a character, they recognise certain qualities or traits that they have in common, and so believe the character to be a representation of themselves. The character then acquires the depth of the reader by sharing a personality and becoming an extension of the reader.
Many characters, even in a very small part, contain something you can relate to. Josh Lyman is the Deputy Chief of Staff at the White House but in some ways he's still a bit of a child. The Doctor is a Time Lord but he's also a nerd. Dexter Morgan is an emotionless serial killer but he also likes a beer in the evening. Taking characters into yourself (maybe less with the last one) turns them into something important. If someone that's a bit like you doesn't get killed by rampaging demons then you might feel a bit better about yourself.

Mostly though, I just think this is rubbish. Everything on screen is not a representation of ourselves. They are fictional creations written to appear human. They need to have depth by themselves, not relying on some nice viewer or reader to adopt them. So what does it mean when a character is called 'flat' as opposed to 'three-dimensonal' - what does character depth mean? Well, my Very Clever essay used a quote from a real academic-type. They said that a character should act on 'multiple impulses that cohere into a single identity'. Yes. So they need to show more than one impulse, more than one emotion. Tony Soprano is a crime lord but also wants to be a good father. Stringer Bell tries to be a gangster and a businessman at the same time. They need to be more than one thing, they need to change. What's my point? Much like in the essay, I don't have a point. But it's, you know, something to think about.


  1. I'd agree with yu in the first instance for most fiction -Great fiction, maybe identification is not so important, the work can be more challenging in that way.

  2. David Mamet likes to write that there is no such thing as character development, just drama and if your drama is strong the characters will emerge from it naturally. That's kind of what my thinking on this topic has always been.

  3. I do think that a lot of a character has to be imagined. They're only on screen for a few hours, so we have to imagine the other bits. As to whether characters emerge from drama naturally, that asks whether plot or people should come first, or if they're seperate. Do the characters happen to plot or the other way round? Characters are only made by what happens to them after all.

  4. I don't know. It's a tough call. To quote Mament even further his belief is that there is no such thing as character devlopment only action and characters' reactions. I don't know how deeply I believe this but hey, if anyone knows what they are doing, Mamet does.

  5. "Josh Lyman is the Deputy Chief of Staff at the White House but in some ways he's still a bit of a child" - That's never occurred, to me, and I can't instantly see it now.. I'd love for you to explain your thoughts more.. fascinating!

  6. I'm always reminded of the scene in season 3, where he's sitting with Amy Gardner outside - 'other people learned what to do but I never did'.

    And he's desperate to do his best for Bartlet and Leo - the parents of the West Wing. This completely obsessive nature - seen right up to the end of the show with Santos - means that he's pretty inept at real world stuff. He mainly looks confused at Donna in the last season. He'd be lost outside of his home, the White House.

    And 'give me all the muffins and bagels in the land'. He's arrogant and impulsive and it gets him into trouble. 'Danny, are you sure you want that one question to be that stupid?' - he thinks he can tackle any situation without experience.

    And one more thing. He's still stuck on his sister's death in a house fire, where he ran out and left her, as a little boy. 'He thinks everyone he loves is going to die and it'll be his fault'.